The Man that Got Away – Jeff Buckley was determined not to follow in the footsteps of his father, tragic cult artist Tim Buckley. But fate had other ideas.
By David Peschek
A SMALL BOY IS
WATCHING HIS FATHER. ALL CHILDREN WATCH THEIR parents. But this eight-year-old
boy hasn't seen his father since he was a baby, and has only a blurred,
dreamlike memory of him. And now his father is on a stage in front of him,
singing. The boy, known as Scott, is with his mother, Mary. It is 1975, and the
venue is The Golden Bear, a small folk club in Huntington Beach, LA. The boy's
father is musician Tim Buckley, whose work journeys far beyond the boundaries of
folk and who has recently released an album of which he is not as proud as he
might be: Look At The Fool.
"I think the
band came on and started cookin' first," remembers Mary, "yeah, and
here's little Scotty, he's got blond hair down to here, he's bouncing in his
seat, he's chair-dancing to his dad's music, and Tim's wailing, and I saw - or I
imagine I saw, I don't know which - his eyes were closed, and he'd open them a
little bit to see Scotty in the second row, and Scotty was grooving. I was
watching the two of them and I thought, This is really going to be amazing.
“At the end of
the first set I said, Do you wanna go backstage and see [Tim], and Scott's like,
'Yeah!' So with him clutching my skirt we made our way back to the dressing
room. There were a lot of people milling around and I didn't see Tim right away.
[Then] this voice called, 'Jeff!' It was the first time anyone had ever called
him Jeff. And he leapt at the sound of his father's voice, across the room into
his arms, and he was sitting on his lap and chattering a mile a minute. He said
things like, 'My dog's name is King, he's white,' and he was telling [Tim]
everything he could think about himself to tell his father. He was sitting on
his dad's lap facing [Tim] and I could see Tim's face over Jeff's shoulder and
tears were just running down his face. So I thought, I'll just let this be, so I
went back to the audience.
“After a few
minutes [Tim's wife] Judy came holding little Jeff 's hand and his feet were not
touching the floor, sparks were coming out of his eyes, and I could see her
steel herself a little bit and she said, 'Do you think we could take him us?'
Now, God was in my head, I'm telling you; Mary Guibert would not have said yes.
I looked at Scotty, and his eyes looked at me like, 'Please don't say no,
Mommy.' It was the Friday night before Easter vacation so there was no school,'
no reason to say no. He stayed 'til Thursday. They sent him home on the bus with
a little matchbook with his daddy's telephone number written in it." Two
months later Tim Buckley, who has been trying to quit heroin, dies of an
Almost two decades
on, the boy - who changed his name shortly after his father's death - is a young
man playing his first out-of-town shows since his solo gigs in the tiny East
Village club Sin-e in New York have made him a hot property. But in Vancouver,
Seattle, places that aren't Sin-e, audiences don't know quite what to make of
this strange new performer, whose set comprises wild vocal peregrinations, Nina
Simone and Judy Garland songs, a handful of his own compositions and a good deal
of crazy, between-song banter.
with these people?" he asks his manager, Dave Lory, despondently.
"It's not the people," Lory replies. "Just play your music. Don't
talk between songs. You're gonna learn something out here no one can teach you.
It's called attitude." "What's attitude?" Jeff asks. "You'll
know when you have it," says Lory.
Two and a half
years later, Jeff Buckley is playing two sold-out nights at the Paris Olympia.
In the encore, the crowd sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for him, and during an
extended version of Big Star's Kanga Roo he launches himself into the audience,
body-surfing on their outstretched hands, playing his guitar as they try to tear
off his clothes. Off-stage, bathed in sweat, he bounds down the stairs to Lory.
he enquires grinning.
Artists who die
young exert a peculiar fascination: Nick Drake, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain – we
pore over their work, their legacy, with near-prurient meticulousness. But
even Nick Drake made three albums in his brief lifetime. Cobain managed four.
Plath left a significant number of poems. Jeff Buckley drowned accidentally,
leaving only one completed album and another barely started. And however much it
might seem otherwise, it was not the weight of history that pulled him under,
but the treacherous currents of the Mississippi.
Jeff's death, his mother Mary Guibert - who, as next of kin, had inherited his
estate - began working with his managers Dave Lory and George Stein, and the
A&R department at Columbia Records. Mary, and Jeff's band, were worried that
the release of Sketches… - initially intended to comprise only the
sessions recorded with producer Tom Verlaine, which Jeff had subsequently
scrapped - was being rushed. You wonder how anyone who'd been close to Jeff
could decide what to do next in the fraught summer of 1997. Mary’s involvement
was greeted with uncertainty. Rumours abounded that she and Jeff had not been on
speaking terms. (Mary and Jeff had argued about a salacious web- posting
Courtney Love had made concerning her son; they remained distant for a while,
and then were reconciled.) In an atmosphere of profound distrust, the situation
was bound to ignite. Mary fired the management and Jeff's A&R man.
Litigation and counter-litigation followed.
Michael Tighe feels the division between Guibert and Lory was inevitable.
"There's always panic and violence and people slandering each other around
someone's death," he says. "People were trying to resolve their
relationships with Jeff in different ways. I think some people thought they were
protecting Jeff, 'cos they met Jeff when he was coming into himself as his own
person and part of that is separating yourself from your home and your
family. But that's what was illuminated when he died: they were holding on to
that relationship they had with him, when you have to reinvent it."
years after her son's death, Mary Guibert still inspires dislike and mistrust in
an array of people of varying closeness to the Buckley circus. She is,
variously, "a failed actress" or (and this with bitter, pointed irony)
"a great actress". "The business of her living though Jeff is
really eerie," comments a source in New York, "like a Flannery
O'Connor story." Perhaps most damningly, another New York source calls her
"a real rock star. You'll get a lot of stuff from her," I'm told,
"but none of it will be about her son."
fact, if everything I'm told about her before we meet were to be true, she would
have to be a monster. And the truth is this: she isn't.
GUIBERT LIVES IN A MODEST BUT WELL-SITUated apartment in Silverlake, a
quasi-bohemian suburb of East LA. When I step out of the lift on her floor, the
first thing I hear is Jeff, wailing down the hall. Two Jeffs stand guard over
her living room - one distracted, preoccupied, the other staring straight ahead;
a huge print of the photo used for the cover of Sketches ... On the opposite
wall is a small shrine arranged around a shot of Jeff and step-brother Corey
Moorehead towering over their diminutive mother. Here too, in Mary's apartment,
are Jeff's CDs; going' through them seems like trespassing, but too tempting to
pass up. ("There's none of his jazz stuff, that had gone, no Nina Simone,
no Duke Ellington, no Ella, no Miles..." Mary mutters darkly.) It's a fair
picture of catholic taste: there are seven by The Jesus Lizard, five apiece from
Bowie and The Cocteau Twins, Jerry Lewis Just Sings next to Lil' Kim,
Esquivel, The Last Poets, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, Oscar Brown Jr's Sin
And Soul next to Bow Wow Wow. And there are boxes and boxes of tapes, many
unmarked, on which Jeff himself is still singing.
get letters from mothers who've lost their sons," Mary says haltingly,
"or their children, or someone they love very much, and when I read their
letters I'm totally, totally moved and blessed; when their child died there were
no 87 hours of recordings of their voice, even though he might be singing the
same song over and over again... in some cases I just sit and listen to the
I first ask about Tim Buckley, she laughs as if recalling a brief but
irrevocable indiscretion. They were high school sweethearts, he a senior, she a
junior, at Loara High School, Anaheim, CA, in 1964. She was musical, and acted,
and was "a goody-two-shoes. I wore the kind of clothes my mother bought for me. Tim was this really interesting-looking
senior who didn't fit in with the rest of the people either, but his best friend
was the student body president, this brilliant guy Larry Beckett. I noticed
them... but I was too busy [with] all my little activities. I was all set to be
a musician and an actress and a dancer, all those things..."
he was beautiful... "He was absolutely beautiful. This burr of curly
black-brown hair and these long curly lashes that reached all the way up to his
eyebrows and this... very sensitive mouth, and just... this way of looking at
me. I'd be walking past him and he'd be sitting with his back to the wall. He'd
stick both legs out so I'd have to step over him. He gave me a look like he knew
what I looked like naked. That was the way it started, this little love affair.
He'd write me these erotic poems, and at 16 that was so grown up and so
awakening, it was amazing."
started dating Mary, keeping her out past midnight. "You can't leave a Bob
Dylan concert 'cos your date had to be home at 11. That's ridiculous. So after
the Bob Dylan concert at the Hollywood Bowl where he plugged in, I got home and
got a beating. Tim told me later that he'd parked his car down the street and
ran back and climbed up the bushes outside my bedroom window and watched my
father beat me. We were 16 and 17, and that just drove us together. We were
Romeo and Juliet, and they were all wrong and we knew what love was all about.
We married in December of my junior year."
it hadn't been for the fact that it was 1966 and the pill wasn't all that
readily available, Mary might have gone on to pursue her acting career, her
music career, whatever. But at 17 and a half Mary found herself pregnant and Tim
found himself newly signed to a recording contract with Elektra. He was about to
go on tour and suddenly Mary wasn't very hip. She was a pregnant wife of an
18-year-old guy: “A real albatross around his neck.”
was five and a half months pregnant when Tim came back to Los Angeles. She sent
him a cassette through his manager. "I said, I just wanted to say this so
you can hear my voice. I know about your girlfriend and I figured that it's over
and I'm really sorry that this is turning out this way but I'm gonna set you
free, I just can't stand to be your enemy. I almost expected to hear from him
after the baby was born, he knew, but... that was just sorta... a lost
year later, when Tim was living out in Venice Beach, Mary visited him with an
eight-month-old little Jeff. She visited him three times in Jeff's first year,
hoping that Tim would want to stay in touch with his son. Later on in his life
Jeff would tell his mother about a recurring dream which bothered him. He's on
the beach, sitting on his father's shoulders, seeing Mary on a blanket. "I
told him, That's not a dream, that really happened. I don't ever remember
telling him. It must have been one of his earliest memories. There was someone
who told me later, in the last two or three years, that Tim actually walked with
[Jeff] to her house down the street; she saw Jeff when he was just a little baby
asleep in his arms. So I know at least [Tim] was proud, he wanted to show her
his baby boy. Then he moved and left no forwarding address and I was 19 years
old. If he ripped my heart out before, this time he spat in the hole.
didn't make an effort to contact him again, although we continued to get child
MICHAEL TIGHE MET
JEFF BUCKLEY WHEN HE FIRST arrived in New York at the start of the '90s.
"He was so knowledgeable. I think the first person we listened to together
was Son House. At the time I was mainly just listening to soul and blues. That
was the first language we shared. Then he opened me up to countless other bands.
I remember thinking there was some- thing superhuman to it, the way he could
process all this information and extract the strength, the core, and what was
beautiful about these songs. From being
around him I learned to get closer to that, the heart of music."
than anything, this is what Mystery White Boy - the new live album
compiled by Michael and Mary - has to say. It's not always easy listening; in
many ways, like Sketches…, it's an extremely sophisticated record that
makes huge demands of the listener. If you love the layered swirl of Grace, you
will almost certainly find it hard work. Often, Jeff seems to be flailing
against the songs, daring them to break open and release some still-hidden
truths. These are, largely, performances that value passion over craft and they
make for exhausting listening.
Tighe: "I do feel that because of the brevity of our time together as a
band, there's not that much of what our essence was recorded, apart from these
live shows. We listened to all of them and that was like... dragging pianos out
of your heart."
didn't actually want these shows recorded, did he?
None of us did. But the more and more I heard how incredible some of the
performances were, I knew we were doing it for the right reasons. There were
times when [his performance] was perfect, and then there are songs with this
sense of him giving so much, unbridled, and it's not perfect, it's raw. You have
to experience what actually happened to Jeff, it's not just like listening to a
away amid the blistering squall of Mystery White Boy is the song that
perhaps has most to say about this driven, relentless young man. It's a solo
cover of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's The Man That Got Away, written
originally for George Cukor's 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, and sung by Judy
Garland. There are two versions of the song that have parallel lives. It was
also released as a single by Frank Sinatra in 1954, retitled The Gal That Got
Away; Ira Gershwin had rewritten the lyric at Frank's request. Jeff almost
certainly learnt the song from the recording of Garland's 1961 performance at
Carnegie Hall; it's telling that he chose not to switch the gender of the lyric.
a famous bootleg of Jeff's appearance at Elvis Costello's Meltdown Festival
where he says. "You know, I love these women's songs, I really love them.
Men are fuck-ups, and the only good thing about that is that so many wonderful
torch songs have been written about what men have done to women, and I love to
sing them." Co-manager George Stein recalls Jeff being asked to describe
himself as a performer. Jeff thought for a long time and finally replied,
GRUELLING TOUR SCHEDULE THAT FOLLOWED the release of Grace - for the last
three years of his life, Jeff spent most of his time on the road - offered him a
strong sense of family. He spent downtime in Seattle with powerhouse soundman
Mark Naficy, a genial, self-effacing man who offered warm, uncomplicated
company. Naficy had joined the crew from tours with Soundgarden and Alice In
Chains, cut his wage in half and rebuilt the PA from scratch, such was his love
of the music. Much of his time is now taken up with providing sound systems for
raves. He rarely goes out on the road. "It's hard," he says, "to
find something that's gonna equal that experience."
the summer of 1994, a more fateful meeting occurred. David Shouse was singer
with The Grifters, a Memphis band touring with The Dambuilders. At a show in
Iowa City, remembers Shouse, "We were told we would be opening for Tim
Buckley's son, and we were like, 'Huh?' We didn't know anything about this guy
and we were all just absolutely floored. We all got turned on to each other that
night and that began the friendship that went on through.”
Jeff, who was just beginning to explore the musical possibilities a band could
offer, it was an education. The Dambuilders were “straight-ahead pop/rock”.
(Violinist Joan Wasser became Jeff's girlfriend, and later played with Shouse in
Those Bastard Souls; currently she and Michael Tighe play together in Black
Beetle.) The Grifters "rep- resented for him that place a part of him
wanted to go after, that more chaotic, uninhibited place. It's four guys who go,
'OK, there are no rules, we can just have a good time.' Some nights when things
click you've got four different people coming from four different directions. It
was almost like having to reach your hand through a barbwire fence to grab a
look back on my relationship with Jeff, particularly after he came to Memphis
and the amount of time we spent together, not like, Oh, we were music buddies...
we were friends. I put pressure on Jeff to come down [to Memphis] because I
started to realise he wanted a rougher sound than Grace. This was in late
'96. He asked where we made our records and I said, There's this amazing studio
[Easley Studios] where you can just do anything you want; he paid a visit and
liked what he saw. Doug Easley and his people are very mellow - very encouraging
of musicians who take chances and try weird stuff." It was at Easley in
Memphis that Jeff began recording the follow-up to Grace, with Tom
Verlaine at the helm, and Columbia and his management snapping at his heels.
Shouse: "I was on tour when they got there, but it must have been January
'97. When we got back, things had kind of hit the wall. Things weren't really
jiving with Tom - the atmosphere was pretty bad - and I don't think Jeff was
really happy with the songs. Our conversations were along the lines of, Fuck the
label, you know? He was unhappy with that side of things, but I think he felt he
needed to get inside those songs more, that's why he decided to hole up in the
house here, and the reason everyone was coming to town when he drowned was
because he called and said, 'I'm ready. Things sound good.' He was ready to
ON JULY 14,1968,
TIM BUCKLEY RECORDED THE FATHER Song at TTG Studios, Hollywood. Written for Hal
'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' Bartlett's film Changes, it remained unreleased
until its inclusion on the recent Rhino Handmade compilation Works In
Progress. It's dangerous to presume it is simply autobiographical, but the
lines carry an inescapable resonance: "I know I'll never be the man you
want me to be/I feel so hungry, so empty inside/So tired of trying but I'm too
young to hide/I didn't mean to smile and turn your love to fire/Oh tell me,
father, is there shame in your heart for me?"
Mary Guibert has
never heard it. She is speechless for a moment when I tell her about it.
"Really? Oh my gosh. I feel the same way about that as I do about Dream
Letter. When I heard that I thought, That's a lovely thought, Tim, I'm sure
that's the way you feel in your heart, why didn't that motivate you into action,
just for that little boy? Not for me.
"One of the
comforts I had in the hours after the realisation that we weren't going to find
Jeff was that he must have immediately gone into the arms of his father. I know
that... Do I see an irony? That it was happening again? For me it wasn't an
'again' thing. When Jeff had his 29th birthday, he said, 'At least now I have
outlived my dad.' Someone sent him his father's death certificate and he wrote
on the outside of the envelope
[mock-dramatic voice] 'Death certificates -who will be next?' My
son had come up with such a
different kind of attitude and different kind of life; he was a young man who
was much more self-possessed than Tim. Tim didn't have the emotional support
Jeff had growing up. They were different, and their deaths were very
the simple tragedy of a young man who drowned, there is a more complex one: some
of those who cared most for Jeff are unable to speak to each other. And this was
a man whose last human exchange was an act of love. He had been reassuring Keith
Foti about his musical ability and prospects. Before wading into the river, Jeff
kissed his friend full on the mouth. At this moment, Michael Tighe was coming
into Memphis to start rehearsals for the second album. "[The band] arrived
as he was dying. We arrived at the house and he wasn't there. The objects there
were very expressive of him, like statements. The way he had his clothes
out, his food with a fork through it, I just felt his presence. The place was
vibrating with his essence. This all went through me real quick then five
minutes later the phone rang, [it was Keith] Foti who said ‘Jeff went under
the water and hasn't come up,’ so we went down to the river, Parker [Kindred,
drummer], Mick [Grondahl], Gene [Bowen, tour manager].
very grateful that I was so close to him when he did die, and that I did
get to feel his presence so much. It was also very generous, the way he died. He
gave me a lot of his touch. It was completely confusing, but I felt his love
there, enough that it made me realise that death isn't an end, which I'd always
thought. When you have that knowledge bestowed on you, that's such a gift.
That's like the only thing I'm sure of I had this experience where his
breath came into me and it just kept coming and I never had anything like that
before. There in his attic. So that's my... what do you call that? I talk about
it all the time, but it's something that feels... like my fact about God."
pauses. "He moved really fast, like he was experiencing life at a very high
speed and just really playful, like a kid. But with some very strong secret and
internal language that he had with himself. There was one area that was really
intangible. You could look in his eyes sometimes and know he was reverberating
inside of himself, that he had these emotions and ideas that probably he would
never tell anybody."